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Parma Native Sends 'Star Trek' Star Nichelle Nichols Into Stratosphere

"Space the final frontier...  To boldly go where no man has gone before."

These are the words millions of Americans learned by heart watching the original "Star Trek" series in the late 1960s and re-runs decades later.

One of the stars of that show is the subject of a new documentary, "Woman in Motion," by Parma-born filmmaker Todd Thompson, which spotlights the little-known story of Nichelle Nichols, better known as Lieutenant Uhura.

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Nichols starred as chief communications officer on the Starship Enterprise from '66 to '69.

Lieutenant Uhura was a ground-breaking role for Nichols, who once aspired to dance and sing on Broadway.  

But after working with "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry a few years earlier, Nichols landed a spot on the Enterprise bridge as the only female and the only African-American.

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Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura [Stars North Productions]

Despite Nichols making history on the small screen with, among other things, the first interracial kiss on television, Thompson says she became frustrated.

"They just really minimalized the role of women, and certainly the role of an African-American woman, on television. So a script that started off with a chunk of dialogue and some really nice scenes maybe ended up with a 'yes captain, no captain,'" Thompson said.

At one point, Nichols was ready to submit her resignation from the show.  

But a chance encounter with a devoted Star fan - Martin Luther King, Jr. - convinced her to stay on after he told her "the fact that she was just on the show, in a leadership role as a main character was huge for society at the time to see that," Thompson said. 

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When the show was cancelled by NBC in 1969, Nichols thought her time as Uhura was over.  

But fans brought the series back to life with annual "Star Trek" conventions.

"And before you knew it, NASA started showing up primarily because a lot of the folks involved with NASA that grew up being "Star Trek" lovers to begin with," Thompson said. "That's really why they found their job at NASA, I think just for the love of space and space exploration."

Listening to the NASA officials speak at the conventions fascinated Nichols. However she noticed a glaring ommission.

"I did not see myself in the present space program. I didn't see myself as a black, and I didn't see myself as a woman. Here I was involved in projecting a future of what our space program and where it could take us and I wanted to be there. Not in fantasy. Not 300 years from today but now," she said in the documentary.

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Nichelle Nichols [Stars North Productions]

"That's when she really called them out and said, 'This is great but where are my people?' It's a very profound statement that became the crux of our story, because through that statement she was able to change the face of the space program forever," he said.

Nichols became a public relations champion for NASA to integrate women and people of color into the space program and eventually into space itself.

"They were already wrapped up with the Apollo program, they were getting into this new thing called the Space Shuttle. They knew they needed astronauts, but instead of just pilots what they really needed... was engineers and scientists and folks that could conduct the right type of experiments that were what the space shuttle was being designed for to begin with," he said.

African-Americans like Charles Bolden, Jr., Mae C. Jemison and the late Ronald McNair joined NASA and became astronauts thanks to Nichols skill as a communicator.

"You let Nichelle talk for one or two minutes and you're hooked. She just has that magnetism about her, that energy in her presence. She just commands an audience wherever she goes," he said.

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Producers Todd Thompson, Nichelle Nichols, David Teek and Tim Franta [Stars North Productions]

At one point in the documentary Nichols recalls how people reacted to her new job saying, "I'm helping NASA recruit the first women and minority astronauts for the Space Shuttle program and they'd go, 'hahaha.' And I said, 'No that's not funny, it's true.'"

"It was almost like her ultimate role in my mind," Thompson said. "She's an amazing woman, she's a beautiful woman. To me she's just Hollywood royalty in the sense that what she stands for, what she represents, what she's accomplished just really earns her that title in my book."

Now it's Todd Thompson's new movie - "Woman in Motion" - that plans to send Nichelle Nichols' story into the stratosphere.

"Woman in Motion" screens at the Chagrin Falls Documentary Film Festival Thursday night and Sunday afternoon.

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